software-defined networking (SDN)

Contributor(s): Jennifer English and John Burke
This definition is part of our Essential Guide: Next-gen IT infrastructure strategy to guide digital transformation

Software-defined networking (SDN) is an architecture that aims to make networks agile and flexible. The goal of SDN is to improve network control by enabling enterprises and service providers to respond quickly to changing business requirements.

In a software-defined network, a network engineer or administrator can shape traffic from a centralized control console without having to touch individual switches in the network. The centralized SDN controller directs the switches to deliver network services wherever they're needed, regardless of the specific connections between a server and devices.

This process is a move away from traditional network architecture, in which individual network devices make traffic decisions based on their configured routing tables.

SDN architecture

A typical representation of SDN architecture comprises three layers: the application layer, the control layer and the infrastructure layer.

The application layer, not surprisingly, contains the typical network applications or functions organizations use, which can include intrusion detection systems, load balancing or firewalls. Where a traditional network would use a specialized appliance, such as a firewall or load balancer, a software-defined network replaces the appliance with an application that uses the controller to manage data plane behavior.

SDN architecture layers
SDN architecture separates the network into three distinguishable layers, connected through northbound and southbound APIs.

The control layer represents the centralized SDN controller software that acts as the brain of the software-defined network. This controller resides on a server and manages policies and the flow of traffic throughout the network.

The infrastructure layer is made up of the physical switches in the network.

These three layers communicate using respective northbound and southbound application programming interfaces (APIs). For example, applications talk to the controller through its northbound interface, while the controller and switches communicate using southbound interfaces, such as OpenFlow -- although other protocols exist.

There is currently no formal standard for the controller's northbound API to match OpenFlow as a general southbound interface. It is likely the OpenDaylight controller's northbound API may emerge as a de facto standard over time, given its broad vendor support.

How SDN works

SDN encompasses several types of technologies, including functional separation, network virtualization and automation through programmability.

Originally, SDN technology focused solely on separation of the network control plane from the data plane. While the control plane makes decisions about how packets should flow through the network, the data plane actually moves packets from place to place.

In a classic SDN scenario, a packet arrives at a network switch, and rules built into the switch's proprietary firmware tell the switch where to forward the packet. These packet-handling rules are sent to the switch from the centralized controller.

The switch -- also known as a data plane device -- queries the controller for guidance as needed, and it provides the controller with information about traffic it handles. The switch sends every packet going to the same destination along the same path and treats all the packets the exact same way.

Software-defined networking uses an operation mode that is sometimes called adaptive or dynamic, in which a switch issues a route request to a controller for a packet that does not have a specific route. This process is separate from adaptive routing, which issues route requests through routers and algorithms based on the network topology, not through a controller.

The virtualization aspect of SDN comes into play through a virtual overlay, which is a logically separate network on top of the physical network. Users can implement end-to-end overlays to abstract the underlying network and segment network traffic. This microsegmentation is especially useful for service providers and operators with multi-tenant cloud environments and cloud services, as they can provision a separate virtual network with specific policies for each tenant.

Benefits of SDN

With SDN, an administrator can change any network switch's rules when necessary -- prioritizing, deprioritizing or even blocking specific types of packets with a granular level of control and security. This is especially helpful in a cloud computing multi-tenant architecture, because it enables the administrator to manage traffic loads in a flexible and more efficient manner. Essentially, this enables the administrator to use less expensive commodity switches and have more control over network traffic flow than ever before.

Other benefits of SDN are network management and end-to-end visibility. A network administrator need only deal with one centralized controller to distribute policies to the connected switches, instead of configuring multiple individual devices. This capability is also a security advantage because the controller can monitor traffic and deploy security policies. If the controller deems traffic suspicious, for example, it can reroute or drop the packets.

SDN also virtualizes hardware and services that were previously carried out by dedicated hardware, resulting in the touted benefits of a reduced hardware footprint and lower operational costs.

Additionally, software-defined networking contributed to the emergence of software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) technology. SD-WAN employs the virtual overlay aspect of SDN technology, abstracting an organization's connectivity links throughout its WAN and creating a virtual network that can use whichever connection the controller deems fit to send traffic.

Challenges with SDN

Security is both a benefit and a concern with SDN technology. The centralized SDN controller presents a single point of failure and, if targeted by an attacker, can prove detrimental to the network.

Ironically, another challenge with SDN is there's really no established definition of software-defined networking in the networking industry. Different vendors offer various approaches to SDN, ranging from hardware-centric models and virtualization platforms to hyper-converged networking designs and controllerless methods.

Some networking initiatives are often mistaken for SDN, including white box networking, network disaggregation, network automation and programmable networking. While SDN can benefit and work with these technologies and processes, it remains a separate technology.

SDN technology emerged with a lot of hype around 2011, when it was introduced alongside the OpenFlow protocol. Since then, adoption has been relatively slow, especially among enterprises that have smaller networks and fewer resources. Also, many enterprises cite the cost of SDN deployment to be a deterring factor.

Main adopters of SDN include service providers, network operators, telecoms and carriers, along with large companies, like Facebook and Google, all of which have the resources to tackle and contribute to an emerging technology.

This was last updated in August 2018

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So while i don't work for Cisco, nor do i endorse their products, the point you make about the 'Cisco Killer' is clearly about their hardware being too expensive. That said, a cisco Switch, or Extreme Networks switch that supports SDN still has way more value in performance than a cheapie switch that supports SDN. Performance, reliability, serviceability etc. still play a very important role in making an SDN network worth-while
Useful and clear article, thanks a lot!
Is your company investigating the benefits of software-defined networking?
i'm kinda rookie in SDN things
i want to know that is there any Implementation of SDN using softwares or simulators like sn2 and etc.?
thanks a lot!
Hi Margaret,

I have been in Networking for more than 6 Years & I am developing interest in SDN & more developing Networking Technology.Can you please guide me how to go from here if I want to learn more of SDN.
I'm working in networking field for 3 years. Since I'm interested in developing SDN in my network, I need help from you guys. Please help me out.


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